The copious epigraphs in Tadpole come courtesy of Voltaire, beginning with “Love shows signs that cannot be mistaken.” Fitting, then, that the movie’s Enlightened young hero is so attuned to the rigors of inductive reasoning, even in an arena as definitively irrational as l’amour. Like all aspiring philosophes, high-schooler Oscar (Aaron Stanford) is an empiricist: “A woman’s experience and intellect are revealed by her hands,” he says by way of accounting for his exclusive attraction to older women. Prematurely middle-aged, fond of world-weary French witticisms, Oscar dotes on his well-thumbed copy of Candide; though he bears little resemblance to Voltaire’s naïf, he does seem quixotically convinced that a 15-year-old can—and should!—seduce his own stepmother.
Back from boarding school at his Upper East Side home for Thanksgiving weekend, Oscar suffers the uninvited attentions of two age-appropriate maidens while mooning after the luminous Eve (Sigourney Weaver), the cardiologist wife of his foggy history-prof dad, Stanley (John Ritter). (Oscar’s French mom—hence his titular nickname, bestowed by a doorman—lives on the Continent.) Drunk, dejected, and eventually relieved of his wallet at a neighborhood bar, Oscar quite literally stumbles into a one-night stand with Eve’s best friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), who sports her own impressive set of experienced, intellectual hands (she’s a chiropractor). The light of day finds Oscar embarrassed but undaunted—he bolts Diane’s apartment and follows Eve to her lab, spinning cardio-metaphors and pitching woo rhetorically: “If everything could be reduced to verbalizable facts, we wouldn’t have any need for music, would we?”
Booze and sex and longing—harmful to minors? Flipping the genders probably would have preempted this year’s Sundance bidding war, an improbable skirmish for a lighthearted, modest coming-of-age vignette, shot in grimy DV (presumably spit-shined for its Miramax release) and barely feature-length at 77 minutes. Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller’s script, helmed by Gary Winick (who won Best Director at the festival), unavoidably summons shades of Harold and Maude and Spanking the Monkey, but Oscar most strongly suggests Rushmore‘s Max Fischer to the brownstone born. Tadpole vibrates with Fischerian echoes: older-woman woes, a restaurant disaster, a Margaret Yang stand-in, Francophilia. True enough, Oscar seems less precocious than preternatural, since Stanford, 23 at the time of shooting, can’t quite pass for jailbait. But the first-timer deftly switches between Oscar’s self-assigned roles—the charming raconteur for Eve, the aloof aesthete for everyone else—while Neuwirth radiates a saucy, infectious giddiness. Her Diane finds the whole situation deliciously hilarious, of course, an attitude her dead-serious pupil simply can’t fathom. Tadpole, as sweet and unassuming a film as they come, embraces both perspectives—it’s sympathetic to the batty throes of a first infatuation, but affably demurs at indulging them.
The youngish lovers in Langrishe, Go Down (originally aired on the BBC in 1978 and now playing at Film Forum) also make a French connection: After a brief courtship, girl flings herself facedown on boy’s bed and murmurs, “Vous êtes un homme, ou quoi?” The eagle has landed! Alas, they seem the victims of a captive market: Nestled away in the 1930s Dublin countryside, Anglo-Irish singleton Imogen Langrishe (Judi Dench) lives in shabby-genteel isolation with her spinster sisters; Otto Beck (Jeremy Irons), an officious, penniless Bavarian scholar, rents the girls’ shed and, as he points out, has no friends. They meet cute in the woods, they develop not a rapport but a fascinatingly robotic mutual affect (Otto pontificates pretentiously; Imogen stares into space intoning “Oh are you?” and “Is that so?”), they fall in love, they fall out.
Aidan Higgins’s novel undergoes a choppy, perplexing script adaptation by Harold Pinter (who enjoys a soused, belligerent cameo), further muddied by non sequitur editing inserts. Imogen and Otto’s happenstance affair holds little intrigue or surprise, while the tawny, heavily upholstered BBC production design and languid violin score provide an inaptly somnolent context for unlikely psychosexual conflict.